JOPLIN, Mo. —
Furniture is assembled and in place. Books have been shelved.
More than two and a half years after having been destroyed by the 2011 tornado, three new schools are ready for business.
The Joplin school district on Monday will permanently open Irving and Soaring Heights elementary schools and East Middle School. Administrators said the buildings — unlike any schools Joplin has seen before — were designed to be durable yet flexible, able to last for the next 100 years but adaptable to changing enrollment, technology and instructional methods.
The schools were designed with input from administrators, faculty, staff, students and parents. Assistant Superintendent Angie Besendorfer said the teams tried to adopt the viewpoint of a child, creating schools that would be “kid-friendly” with lots of colors, geometric shapes and textures.
“We don’t want our schools to be perfect to our taste as adults because they’re not for us,” she said.
NEW LEARNING SPACES
The schools’ designs reflect a manner of instruction that Besendorfer said will help prepare students for real-world settings by developing skills such as problem-solving and teamwork.
The three wings of Irving, for example, are arranged into “neighborhoods,” each with its own theme — space, park and pond.
Each neighborhood consists of an open space in the middle of the wing, around which the classrooms are built. The idea, Besendorfer said, is that teachers in each wing can bring their classes out into the neighborhood for collaborative projects and group activities.
There’s a similar arrangement at East, which is built for six student groups that will be divided by grade level. Students will spend most of their schoolday with their group, attending their core academic classes in their designated area of the school with a team of teachers, Besendorfer said. Collapsible walls and moveable doors can create open spaces for students and teachers to work together, she said.
Besendorfer said this approach will allow teachers to share resources and students will waste less time moving between classes.
Some students said they like this approach, as it means they will get to stay with their classmates throughout the day and won’t have to worry about being tardy to class.
“I especially like all the classrooms because we call them ‘homes,’ and in the middle there’s a ‘living room,’ and it’s where we can get together and talk about our homework or just hang out,” eighth-grader Sydney Alejandro said at a recent open house for the middle school.
The classrooms are built to encourage learning, with natural lighting and ergonomic furniture designed to help students remain focused and engaged, Besendorfer said.
“The hustle and bustle of the classroom is not about getting students to sit in their seat for seven hours,” she said.
John Brown, with the Kansas City-area firm Hollis + Miller Architects, said the schools are not designed for rows of desks facing a chalkboard. To try to reach students however they learn best, some classrooms are large, with long, built-in window seats; others are small with glass-paneled walls. Each school also has some sort of outdoor classroom or learning environment, he said.
“Not everybody learns the same way. Some students learn in group settings, and they’re more comfortable in large groups; some students like to just work by themselves,” Brown said. “Some students are visual; some students are tactile. What you’re seeing in schools now is creating multiple different types of spaces that can engage students differently.”
The schools also were built with energy-efficient features that the district hopes will keep maintenance and operating costs low, construction director Mike Johnson said.
“All this adds up to a very efficient building envelope and reduces your need for heating and cooling,” he said.
Johnson said the use of large windows should reduce the need for lighting, and sensors shut lights off automatically when rooms or hallways are unoccupied. A rainwater collector at East will gather runoff, reducing the need for irrigation, he said.
Architects said the schools, which each have a safe room that meets Federal Emergency Management Agency guidelines, also will be secure. Irving, for example, has a distress button installed in the front office, the pressing of which will close and lock a set of double doors that will prevent entry into each of the main wings where classrooms are located, said Pam Hardiman, an architect with Sapp Design Architects Associates of Springfield.
Soaring Heights and East also have distress buttons that can automatically lock internal doors, as well as external doors that will remain locked to visitors unless they are buzzed in by staff, Brown said.
All three schools pay tribute to the buildings that came before them through a display of historical images. Irving also holds the former building’s cornerstone, and Soaring Heights will house the bell that was formerly at Duquesne.
The cost to rebuild the three schools totals nearly $65 million: about $18.5 million for Irving, $13.6 million for Soaring Heights and $32.7 million for East. Paul Barr, chief financial officer, said the district is expected to have enough funds to cover those costs.
“We have budgeted revenue in the amount sufficient for the cost of these buildings, and really our entire rebuild project,” he said.
Barr said sources of that revenue include donations to the district following the 2011 tornado, insurance proceeds, a $62 million bond issue approved by voters in April 2012 and monies from the federal and state emergency management agencies.
Faculty and staff have spent their Christmas break packing and moving their classrooms to their new buildings, while many students and parents anticipate officially setting foot inside the schools for the first time on Monday.
Irving teachers are excited about the collaboration spaces, which can be shared among classes for projects and other group activities, principal Nila Vance said. Students, meanwhile, look forward to a building with lots of color, shapes and playful features, including water-bottle stations installed near drinking fountains, she said.
The opening of the school will mark the first time the faculty and students of the old Irving and Emerson schools will be under the same roof. Some of the schools’ teachers have never yet worked together, while others who taught side-by-side for years — as well as some families with children of varying ages — found themselves split this year between Irving’s two campuses, which were divided by grade level.
“Our family is coming together, and we’re coming home,” Vance said.
Candice Brown, a third-grade teacher at Irving, echoed those sentiments.
“I like finally having our staff together in one location and the kids having their siblings together in one location,” she said.
More than 300 students at Soaring Heights, which have come from Duquesne and Duenweg schools, have already been combined into one building, but excitement for the move into the new school is “palpable,” principal Teresa Adams said.
She said the new school will ease overcrowding that had been felt at the Duenweg building. And while the students just hope the playground is ready for them on Monday, teachers anticipate exploring the school with their classes, she said.
“Every inch of the building is designed for learning,” she said. “The opportunity is there for us to really individualize instruction and meet the kids where they are and move them on using innovative techniques.”
Bud Sexson, principal of East Middle School, hopes the new building will bring faculty, staff and students together into a tighter-knit community. The temporary school — a converted warehouse east of Joplin — hasn’t been too accommodating to activities that would bolster school pride under normal circumstances.
“We haven’t been able for 2 1/2 years to host a home volleyball match or a home basketball game. We’ve had to travel to other middle schools, and it’s not the same,” he said. “I think our school morale, our teacher morale — I think our whole culture will take a positive hit, a bump.”
Rikki Smith, whose daughter, Emma, is an eighth-grader at East, hopes the new school will boost participation in extra- and co-curricular activities, which has waned since classes began at the temporary school. She also hopes having a school closer to the city will encourage more parental involvement.
“I think it will strengthen those ties, and school spirit, I think, will increase,” she said.
All three new schools will be open for public viewing and community tours from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 12.
IRVING ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
Address: 2901 S. McClelland Blvd.
Architect: Sapp Design Architects Associates
Capacity: 650 students
Building area: 88,400 square feet
SOARING HEIGHTS ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
Address: 4594 E. 20th St.
Architect: Hollis + Miller Architects
Capacity: 450 students
Building area: 65,290 square feet
EAST MIDDLE SCHOOL
Address: 4594 E. 20th St.
Architect: Hollis + Miller Architects
Capacity: 750 students
Building area: 157,273 square feet